(CBS/AP)-- As a courtesy to the American people during this holiday season, lawmakers should act sooner rather than later on a bill to extend tax cuts for the middle class, Vice President Joe Biden said today during a lunch stop in Arlington, Va., hinting that Democrats may be willing to negotiate a deal in which the rate on top earners does not spike all the way to 39.6 percent.
"If we can act like adults and reach an agreement here on the 'fiscal cliff,' the upside is much higher even than the downside is if we don't," Biden told reporters as he sat down for a quick bite at the Metro 29 Diner. Negotiations on the so-called "fiscal cliff" are currently stalled as Republicans and Democrats in Congress debate whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans or only those making less than $250,000 a year.
"We could negotiate how far up" top tax rate should go.Biden promoted President Obama's proposal, which would let the Bush-era tax rates for the top two percent of earners revert back to 39.6 percent - the same level they were at during Bill Clinton's presidency - but for the first time lent credence to the idea that Democrats may be willing to agree to a lower rate: "The top brackets have to go up - this is not a negotiable issue," he said. "Theoretically, we can negotiate how far up. But we think... the top rate should go to 39.6 percent."
A bill could be sketched out in "15 minutes" if House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed to let the tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans on Jan. 1, Biden said, joking that the president would likely dispatch him to "sprint" up the Hill to retrieve it for him to sign. It could be done "like that," he said, snapping his fingers, and the sooner, the better.
"Think of how many people are out there making a judgment now whether or not they go out and spend another $300 on Christmas gifts, if they think that next month immediately they're gonna have $260 less in their paycheck, or whatever the number will be," Biden said. He added that if the country does go over the "cliff" at year's end, middle-class families won't be able to pay for recreational activities like piano lessons or gymnastics.
On the November jobs report out this morning, the vice president praised the slow but steady improvement in the national unemployment rate: "It's undeniable the trajectory is positive," he said. "I think we have turned the corner as an economy."